We’re all tough guys/gals here, right? We work through achy joints and old injuries, we push ourselves past old limits, and when we get hurt, we push through that too. If you’re anything like me, you probably derive some level of pride from your ability to withstand punishment, your willingness to work through the hurt, to lean on discipline in times of weakness …
… and I’m going to level with you, it’s sort of a problem.
When I was young, injuries, even ones that threatened my future, were romantic inconveniences — an obstacle for me to overcome. After all, what’s a story without a challenge, right? But as I got older, the ways my body recovers from injury have changed. For some injuries, getting back to 100% is a biological impossibility (at least with current medical science), making injuries like my back and knees something different than a challenge I can simply move past. I’m going to have these problems for the rest of my life — that’s not an obstacle, that’s just who I am now.
Despite understanding and appreciating the ways injury can have reverberating repercussions throughout my remaining decades, I can’t help but approach self-care in much the same way I did as a young athlete that, by comparison, seemed to heal like Wolverine. I avoid the doctor by using bullshit excuses like, “I’ve done this all before, I already know what he’s going to say,” or, “there’s nothing he can do about this old injury anyway.” Mind you, I’m not without justification when it comes to not wanting to go to the doctor. I’ve had surgeries go wrong, I’ve had symptoms ignored, and I watched my father lose his grip on life (by way of serious stroke) when a surgeon made a simple mistake in what was supposed to be an outpatient procedure. Doctors make mistakes, get complacent, and sometimes just plain old suck but they’re also the only folks that can keep us in the fight sometimes.
Back in the days before I’d given up my cushy corporate corner office to pursue writing, my mother-in-law came down with something. She was a tough broad that owned her own business and spent fifteen hours a day on her feet, so when she felt what seemed like the flu coming on, she quietly assured herself that she’d work through it as she had before. With no health insurance, “ignore it until it goes away” is a pretty common medical approach.
After a few months of feeling under the weather, Jan began to believe she may have something worse than the flu. Maybe she’s contracted Lyme Disease or Mono, I recall her postulating. Then, one day, she simply collapsed in her front yard as she made her short walk to work.
She woke up in an ambulance. Soon thereafter we were given her prognosis: aggressive cancer had started in her lungs and had already spread throughout much of her body. Treatment wasn’t a practical option, so all there was left for Jan to do was sit and wait for death to claim her. We couldn’t afford a hospice nurse, so my wife left her job and moved six hours away to care for her mother until she passed. When it was over, Jan left us after only getting to spend a paltry 56 years on this earth. Of course, in that short time, she managed to leave one hell of an impression.
My dad was perhaps not quite as hardy as Jan. Like me, he’d grown up playing contact sports and collecting injuries, but after Vietnam, his ability to keep his demons at bay began to falter. Successful businessmen are rarely the folks you picture when you imagine problems with drugs and alcohol, but then, my dad was never an average guy. Eventually, his proclivity for seeking refuge at the bottom of liquor and pill bottles conspired with his unwillingness to seek medical treatment for nagging health issues until the stakes were life-threatening. A mistake may have caused my father’s stroke, but his unwillingness to address health issues like his weight is what put him on that table.
The thing is, we all grow up feeling invincible, right up until we get hurt bad enough to realize that we’re not. Once we exit the “full recovery” stage of our lives and turn the corner into “your knee is just bad until you die” territory, our injuries and ailments serve as much more than inconveniences… they become reminders: of our mortality, of our advancing age, of our impending death. As a result, we tend to manage health problems in much the same way lots of people with tight budgets manage their credit scores: by ignoring it and hoping for the best.
The harsh, but necessary realization that you are going to die someday can be a tough hill to climb, even for those of us that have already come close to crossing that bridge once or twice before. I may not be all that old, but my opportunity to die a young and romantic death has already passed me by — and if I can’t do that, like Ike Reilly explains in the excellent song, “Let’s live like we’re dyin’,” I want to make it as far as I can.
I used to wanna die young.
I used to wanna die loud.
Maybe crash up in my car, or blow my own brains out.
I used to wanna die young …
Well, It’s too late now.
I wanna live now forever.”
So, if I’m hoping to still be around when my daughter is my age, it stands to reason that the methodology I’ve employed throughout my youth isn’t going to cut it. Like it or not, there will eventually be some medical condition, some ailment or disease that will ultimately be the one that takes us away from the people we love. There’s no getting around it and no way to stop it from happening but what we can do is stay out in front of it. If Jan had gone to the doctor when she first suspected something was wrong, she may have caught her cancer in time to treat. If my dad had gone to the doctor (and listened) in his forties or fifties, he might not have had to meet my daughter from a hospital bed just days before we lost him for good.
I like being a tough guy. If I’m willing to be honest and open with you guys, there have been a number of days in my life when I felt like my ability to work through pain was the most significant (or only) real value I brought to the table. Some guys have great hands, some guys have great minds — I never felt like I had either, but what I did have was the ability to silence that nagging sense of self-preservation that keeps most people from laying down a big hit or pushing a little longer than my body felt it could. I’ve passed out on runs, I’ve knocked myself unconscious making tackles, and I’ve trained, hiked, and fought on broken bones and torn ligaments. Under most circumstances, I’ve seen that as an ability worth bragging about but as my joints audibly pop and crack when I try to quietly lay my daughter down in her crib I have to ask myself: if there was something I could do to help make sure I stay able to care for this little girl, wouldn’t I do it?
Well, it turns out, there is something. I can go to the damn doctor.
I recently found out that I have Lyme Disease. With the amount of time I spend hiking, it wasn’t too big a surprise and we caught it early enough that my prognosis is very good (in fact, I’m already nearly out of the woods, so to speak). I avoided going to the doctor for a few weeks because I was tough enough to get by. I didn’t want to trudge into the doctor’s office, whine about feeling a little under the weather and be sent home with some flu medicine. Instead, it turned out I needed a pretty serious course of antibiotics and regular blood tests to keep track of my progress. If my wife hadn’t put her foot down and demanded that I go “for the sake of our daughter,” who knows how long I would have just felt worse and worse, got slower and slower, and over time, just accepted it as who I am now.
Worse still, what if it hadn’t been Lyme Disease?
Fitness may be the game that we’re in, but toughness is the way we compete. We get up in the morning and manage our aches and pains. We get through our day and pop Motrin as needed. We adjust our lifts to compensate for the joints that are missing ligaments, the bones that never quite set right, and the injuries that hurt us every day but that never saw the satisfying conclusion of a final diagnosis. I’m proud to be that sort of guy, and chances are good that the sort of folks reading this are proud too.
But here’s the thing, we can still be tough while trying to stay functional for as long as we can. If that nagging pain in your knee could be solved with a partial meniscectomy that wouldn’t even require an overnight stay in the hospital… wouldn’t it be worth it to find out? If the carpal tunnel in your wrist that keeps giving you trouble could be solved by wearing a brace here and there, isn’t it worth asking?
If that cold you just can’t seem to get over is actually cancer, and you could catch it in time to spend another ten years with your family…
You get the idea. Now make an appointment.
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Modified feature image courtesy of Max Pixel